Former United defender Lee Roche looks back on his time at Old Trafford and reveals what it was like to train and play with club legends.
Lee was at United from a young age after being spotted playing for his local district side as an 11 year-old. He describes being asked by a United scout to go and train with the club as ‘a brilliant feeling’ and went on to progress through the youth system.
Lee has a lot of happy memories of growing up as a youth player at United and made some quite well-known friends during the process: “I made a lot of friends there growing up, lads that I came through with like Stephen Rose, Paul Wheatcroft, Luke Chadwick and John O’Shea. From being 11 through to 21 when I left, it was a long time to spend together and you get to know people quite well through going away on trips and training together.”
The Bolton-born defender got his chance in the first team in November 2001, starring alongside several of his fellow academy graduates in a 4-0 defeat to Arsenal at Highbury in the League Cup: “I thought we did alright in the opening stages of the game, Danny Webber was playing and Jimmy Davis as well so it was a lot of young lads all being thrown in together.
“It was a buzz just to be involved with the first team, playing at Highbury and Arsenal had quite a few established players playing so we knew we were up against it. I think we did well for the first 20 minutes to half an hour and then their experience started to show and they got the better of us a little bit.
“It was still a great experience, to play with lads that you’d come through with as well was good. Sylvain Wiltord scored a hat-trick, I think I gave away a penalty and I remember Kanu showing me a few tricks. I still get reminded that he flicked one over my head, volleyed it and it just went over the bar. I remember thinking how glad I was that it didn’t go in because it would have been a really good goal and they’d still probably show it now.
“The manager told us after the game that we’d had a taste of what it was like and the levels you needed to reach if you wanted to play for the first team. I think he knew we were up against it though because of the amount of first team regulars that Arsenal had playing and I think he just encouraged us more than anything, it was a learning curve for most us who were playing in the first team for the first time.”
Of his relationship with ‘the gaffer’, Lee has only positive memories of his relationship with Sir Alex Ferguson: “He was firm but fair, if something needed saying to you he’d tell you and I don’t think he made exceptions with anyone. He was just honest more than anything and you could go and see him if you did have questions or were unsure about something.
“He’s the best manager that I’ve ever worked for and I’ve not got a bad word to say about him.”
Lee made two more appearances for the first team during the following season, coming on as a substitute in a 5-3 home win over Newcastle and starting a Champions League away tie against Deportivo which ended in a 2-0 defeat: “It was a bit of a surprise to get on in the Newcastle game, I think it was Laurent Blanc who came off injured but that was probably the highlight, coming on at Old Trafford in front of a full house.
“I think I played for about 15 to 20 minutes, it was certainly memorable. I remember getting a bit of a talking to off the manager after the game because Shearer had towered over me on the back post to win a header, he told me I had to get up first and not let forwards do that to me. I think Shearer was probably in his prime at the time and identified me as a youngster and pulled onto the back post on me.
“Things like that you learn from going in and playing against players like that, it was a shame that I didn’t get more opportunities but it was a great experience.
“I knew I was going to play in the Deportivo game because we trained the night before and set up in the team that would be playing. It was good to actually be able to prepare yourself and know that you were starting. It was great to play in the Champions League, the music coming on and you wonder whether it’s all really happening.”
On what it was like to train and play with top players, Lee remembers the competitive nature of the first team squad at United and one incident in particular springs to mind: “They were just winners, I remember us having a relay race one day as a warm up just before training and Keane and Giggs were both arguing because they both wanted to win.
“I think Keane was captain of one team and Giggs of another and they were having a proper argument probably about somebody sneaking in a couple of yards head start. They were just so competitive and absolute winners. I think that’s what made United so good, having people like that.
“All of the players there had their individual qualities and people ask me who the best player was but it’s hard to say really. I just feel lucky to have been involved and learnt bit off them during the time that I was there.”
Lee left Old Trafford in the summer of 2003 in search of regular first team football, he joined Burnley where he spent a couple of seasons before going on to play for Wrexham and Droylsden: “I went to see the manager and said that I wanted to be playing more first team football to see what my chances were.
“He told that I might get a chance but that there were already established players in front of me, obviously Gary Neville and Phil Neville was still there. You get to a stage when you play too much in the reserves where it affects your game and you’re turning up and going through the motions and you need that test of playing in competitive first team games.
“I probably regret not going out on loan instead of totally leaving but when you’re that age you have confidence in your own ability and you want to prove to people that you can do it. Watford came in for me but I didn’t really want to go down and live in London.
“I ended up going to Burnley, Neville Neville rang my house and he must have been friendly with Stan Ternent. He said that Stan was interested in me and to go down and have a chat with him so that’s how that one came about.”
Now 34, Lee hasn’t played professional football in the last few years, instead preferring to focus on other interests: “I work coaching the kids at Bury and do some stuff with Opta, doing the stats which has allowed me to get to quite a few of the games at Old Trafford.
“I’ve been doing cavity wall insulation as well for five or six years now but it seems to have dried up a bit so I’m hoping to get a full-time coaching role somewhere if possible. We’ll just have to see what happens.”